I can remember where I was the first time it happened. I had been warned many times that bribes and graft were a part of life in Africa and that I should expect to be asked for funds to complete projects or close sales. I was always vigilant but for whatever reason I was not expecting this. I was in the immigration line at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos leaving the country for eastern Africa. This was probably around my fourth or fifth trip to Nigeria. It was my turn to be called up for inspection. There were two agents at the desk and they started looking at my passport, ticket and documentation. Normally this process takes a few seconds or a minute at most but they were looking at it for a good three or four minutes before one of them walked away. The one who stayed there looked at it for another minute and said that there was a problem with my passport. I knew that my passport nor entry VISA were not close to expiring visa and that I had filled in my form correctly. He handed it back to me and I looked at it. “What’s missing?” I asked. He looked at me for a minute and finally murmured “Money”. It clicked. “Oh” I said loudly “You want me to put money in my passport”. He nodded yes and I made a big scene to open my wallet, take out the cash and then handed it back to him with my last Naira (it was only about $3 worth) and said, this is the last of the Naira that I have on me. He took it, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.
It was only $3 but it upset me. Things shouldn’t be done like that, but they are. While graft is rampant throughout most of Africa, it isn’t like we are immune in North America as we clearly saw in Quebec with the results of the construction industry probe over the past 10+ years. It has unfortunately infected society in general and this is unfortunately why you see that people who have the good fortune to rise in positions of authority (government, bureaucracy, police, politics) also rise considerably in wealth as a portion off the top of business gets put aside. Any North American businessman knows that to get involved in graft schemes anywhere in the world risks incarceration in both Canada and the US. I’ve lost many sales over the years because I won’t play ball when it comes to skimming off the top.
This unpleasantness has a serious cost to business. Having to take into account these funds increases the margins required to stay in business and ends up increasing the cost to the consumer. I am often shocked at the cost at which people in Africa have to pay or goods which should be much cheaper. Due to the fact that every level that goods get processed through to hit the consumer, adds a layer to fill another person’s pocket is inherently bad for everyone. Everyone pays more for everything and only the few profit from it all.
How do you avoid this though when it becomes engrained into the culture? There are several strategies to avoid this, but the bottom line is that if you choose your local partners carefully and treat them generously in their compensation, most of the time the situation can be avoided. The right partner in many parts of Africa has a solid reputation and the hands do not come out to get a piece of the pie when people are treated fairly to begin with. People must know that you are morally bound to ethical business transactions and in the long run, it will always serve you best to never stray into the mess that this involves.
Many governments in Africa have started taking a harder stance against graft which is a great thing. Making markets truly free and having people earn their success rather than be advantaged by who they know or what position they can obtain for themselves in public service is truly the best remedy for all. The best way to ensure that more people are served by the government in a manner that is more efficient, is if more people fight against the power of greed for the few. If we can make a bigger dent in this, it will help everyone in the long run. Even if it hurts you financially for the sale you lose, you come out a winner in the end.
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